Adolph and I spent five days in Oshkosh last week, setting up an exhibit at UW-Oshkosh and giving talks and critiques. Adolph traveled there with a truckload of our artwork. Since I would have had to sit on the floor in the truck’s cab and look up only at sky and treetops for an hour and a half, I chose to take a bus.
I walked into Milwaukee’s new Amtrak Station almost two hours early for the bus to Oshkosh, and my nostrils curdled. The station isn’t new at all, it’s on its way to being new. Bus and train passengers have to wait in a construction site, overwhelmed by fumes. I went outside to breathe; the air was saturated with cigarette smoke.
This is nothing compared to what the people in southern California are inhaling, I kept telling myself. But then, we don’t have forest fires here. I’m sure an airport wouldn’t remain open to the public if its air were this toxic. Perhaps this is a class issue.
I asked a bus driver what the fumes were. “Glue,” he told me, “That’s why I’m out here.” He paused, then added, glancing at the solid glass walls, “The winds will blow right through there in winter. And it’ll cost a fortune to heat. They had the architects design it, didn’t want any input from the people like me, the people who use it every day.”
Another class issue, I thought. Bus riders, whether local or long distance, don’t count. Here we are, some voluntarily, some not, taking public transportation. We help in the fight against global warming, and Scott Walker wants to cut back local bus routes. He tried to get rid of the #15 of all routes, the East Side lifeline for those who don’t drive, the miracle bus that takes us from Bayshore to Bayview and beyond, never empty, never dull! Rather than Scott Walker, I’d dub him Scott Driver.
The phone rang just as we were about to leave for the evening. “It's Jon Healy. Are you both sitting down? I have some grave news.” Maybe I'd misunderstood. Grave sounds like great in a world full of wishes that can't come true. Strange. A voice comes over the phone line. I don't want to hear it, yet I want to know. So I listened in a nightmare state. Jon's sister, Ellen, was hit by a pickup truck that morning. He hadn't said yet whether or not she was still alive. I waited, hoped. But there was no hope. She'd been declared brain dead.
My mind filled with images of Ellen, tried to erase that final one. She was more than Sarah's friend, was close to our whole family. I suddenly wanted to be sure: were she and Sarah really only four years old when they met? I looked through my old Hallmark date books. Yes. June 24, 1967, was their first play date. I'd wanted Sarah to meet another child going to JCC day camp. And that child turned out to be Ellen. Ellen's spirit, the oomph combined with innocence that sparked their friendship 40 years ago, never changed. Part of her became an adult, yet she kept the child within.
Ellen was unique, truly unique, simply herself, no pretenses, enthusiastic about life and learning, off the wall in the best possible way. And creative, always ready to play, always inventive. And brilliant. Her PHD professor said she was one of the best students he'd ever had.
I used to go out dancing with my kids and their friends. Ellen and I had a special electricity, would mime crazy, anything goes, skits to the music, even when her leg was in a cast. She collaborated with me when I started performing, acting out one of my short stories. Sarah and Ellen had that same sort of electricity. One summer they painted together in the Shorewood alleyways, inspired each others' company. I never saw the paintings Ellen did that summer, but I know Sarah's were some of her best.
Ellen often came to our family dinners with the Leplaes, a lively presence in our games of charades, story-writing, pictionary, or whatever else we figured out to play. After she moved away from Milwaukee, she and I always made sure we'd take a bike ride together whenever she visited.
Ellen's life wasn't easy, was haunted by illness and accidents, falling out of trees, sledding into one. She seemed to take it all in stride. She had facial surgery as a result of the sledding accident. When we visited her in the hospital, she looked like Little Lulu, yet didn't appear at all nonplussed, didn't have to apologize for her swollen face.
Ellen's core, her intense interior life, always showed through. She cared about nature, about the arts, about the world, cared about friends and family. And we all cared about her. You can get a sense of the impact she had on others' lives if you read the blogs written about her and come to the memorial service at Rosenblatt Gallery, located over Artasia at 181 N. Broadway, on Saturday, November 17, at 1:30 PM. Ellen grew up in Shorewood, and I hope some of you reading this will share your memories with the rest of us.
The world needs more people like Ellen, but tragically we have one less.
On Martin Luther King Day, as I listened to a replay of Dr. King's last speech, I mused on that sore spot in the psyche, the one that makes tragedy repeat itself. MLK, JFK, RFK, each time we celebrate their lives, I'm reliving their deaths, re-mourning their absence, and wondering how history would have played out if they were still here.
Our country needs Martin Luther King, Jr. more than ever. So does Shorewood. Last summer at a rummage sale I overheard a man ask a woman, “Did you move to Shorewood?”
She replied, “Never. You know me.”
“Why wouldn't you move to Shorewood?” I asked.
“Lack of diversity.” That's what I figured, and although I love living here, I felt ashamed.
Shorewood seems more diverse than it was when we moved here in 1969. One big change is all the Russian Jews, who walk the bike path fearlessly and shop along Oakland Avenue. I googled the statistics, and here's what I found: Shorewood Population - 13,763 (I suspect this is a couple of years old): Latino 2.5%, White 89.8%, Black 2.4%, Asian 3.2%, Other 1.8% Median income $56,698. Thanks to busing, the schools are somewhat integrated, but they should be integrated thanks to housing. We do have a lot of modest housing, Milwaukee bungalows and duplexes that would be reasonably priced if they weren't located here. People move to Shorewood for the schools, not the homes, yet living in a diverse community is a major part of education.
I heard a segment on NPR last week about a new study: Diversity Spurs Workplace Creativity. My personal education stems in large part from the places I've been, not from the places themselves but from the people I've met there, from trying to understand lives as different as possible from my own. That's the challenge for us all.
Where am I going with this? Possibly nowhere. The solution is affordable housing, and I don't hear anyone talking about that. Well, actually I do. As the housing market bottoms out, maybe Shorewood will become affordable.